Will India’s General Election Eclipse its Democracy?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pose an imminent threat to India’s liberal, secular democracy particularly as their agenda impacts religious minorities and other voices of dissent. No doubt, Modi enjoys widespread popularity among the Hindu middle classes of northern India and among many sections of the Indian diaspora. Modi’s supporters believe that his political skills and charisma, when joined with the well-orchestrated campaign by his party and its affiliates, have made his re-election all but inevitable. Modi, they claim, has transformed India into an economic giant, lifted 250 million Indians out of poverty, and made India a formidable player in the geopolitics of Asia and the world. These achievements, they believe, will cement his overwhelming victory.

At the same time, we must note the very real elements of resistance, dissent, and opposition to the agenda pursued by Modi and the BJP. These voices draw attention to extreme income inequality, the plight of farmers, high rates of youth unemployment, and rampant discrimination and violence against Muslims and other minorities. Those who dissent from the BJP’s agenda do not presume that everything was fine before the party’s rise to power; they simply believe that the direction India is taking might very well mark the end of liberal, secular democracy and the well-being of huge sections of the population. Developments of the past decade have exposed the high price of political dissent in India – with journalists, scholars, and activists being silenced or imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the imprisonment of political opponents such as Arvind Kejriwal, the government’s freezing of the assets of the Congress Party, and the expulsion from Parliament of leading opposition figures such as Rahul Gandhi, Mahua Moitra, and others. These are not the policies of a party that has won the soul of India’s masses, but those of a regime of insecurity that relies on coercion – both of the state and of vigilantes – to advance its Hinduizing agenda.

Two weeks ago, many were able to see the solar eclipse in its totality. As they experienced the mid-afternoon chill and darkness, the utter amazement of this rare gift of nature caused many to erupt in gleeful applause. With India going to the polls, some, such as Ashutosh Varshney, believe that we will observe a different kind of eclipse – that of civil society and liberalism in the world’s largest democracy. But will we view this eclipse in its totality? Will Modi return to power with an absolute majority of 370 seats in parliament – placing him in a position to change the Indian Constitution, even to declare India a Hindu Rashtra (kingdom or state)? Others, such as the political economist, Parakala Prabhakar, maintain that this possibility is overhyped and is precisely what the BJP wants people to believe, namely, that its ascendancy is inevitable and resistance is futile.

I am in no position to speculate on the outcome of the ongoing elections, but would maintain that despite Modi’s popularity among the Hindu middle classes, the BJP’s support has never been close to being a totality, or hegemonic. There are huge sections of India’s population who are not sold by the project of Hindutva (making India officially a Hindu state), who are suffering because of it, and who, in their pain, are becoming all the more repulsed by the BJP and its vision of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Nationalism is the work of the imagination. Nationalism invents a pure heritage and distinguishes itself from an “other” – an enemy outsider, or a forever foreigner. In the case of the BJP, we are looking at a proliferation of “others” whom the government wishes to control through carrots and, increasingly, heavy sticks. Hindutva has constructed a Muslim other, a leftist other, a Christian other, and a Sikh, Dalit, and tribal other. There is a deep history of Hindu nationalism that dates back to the colonial period; but since the 1980s, the Sangh Parivar (“saffron family,”or coalition of organizations committed to Hindu nationalism) has revitalized this agenda by pairing it with a commitment to big money from corporate growth, arising from the reforms of the 1990s.

Since the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, Muslims have borne the brunt of Hindutva’s vilification and aggression. Reasonably informed Indians would be familiar with the mass carnage that occurred in Godhra in 2002 under then Chief Minister Modi’s watch; and would be acquainted with the different ways the Hindu right has advanced a new, Hindu masculinity that sanctions vigilante violence against so-called Muslim beef dealers, allegations of love jihad, and theories of Hindu replacement tied to Muslim immigration and birth rates. Layered upon this Islamophobia are policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act – which grants an expedited path to citizenship for non-Muslims fleeing persecution in neighboring Muslim majority states – and the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which assigns a special status to the Muslim majority region of Kashmir.

At the heart of this vilification of Muslims is the BJP’s religious definition of citizenship. India is for Hindus, and if non-Hindus want to remain in India, they must do so at best as subordinate classes, or at worst as those who are consistently vulnerable to violence. This posture has contributed to the sense of fear and vulnerability felt by India’s Muslims, despite being India’s largest minority, with a population larger than most Muslim countries of the world. It should be noted that the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has recently published its polling of 10,000 Indians in which it found that the vast majority – 79 percent – believe that India belongs to members of all religions and overwhelmingly reject a narrow, religion-based construction of citizenship.

India’s Christians are a much smaller population than Muslims, numbering hardly 3 percent, but have also endured a sharp increase in violence under Modi. Much of this has involved alleged speech hurting Hindu sentiments and allegations of forced or induced conversions, in breach of anti-conversion laws. Instances of anti-Christian violence have risen from 90 in 1998, when the BJP had first formed a government, to more than 500 instances this past year.

Nowhere is violence against Christians more pronounced and widespread than in the conflict between Meitei and Kuki-Zo tribals in the northeast BJP-led state of Manipur, under Chief Minister Biren Singh. In June 2023, India Today reported that of the 1,988 houses that were destroyed, 1,425 were Kuki. 17 Hindu temples and 227 churches were destroyed. Since then, the number of churches and synagogues destroyed has increased to more than 360, and tens of thousands of Kukis have been displaced from their homes.

Because of Manipur’s location in the far northeast, bordering Myanmar, it is tempting to regard this conflict as largely peripheral to mainstream Indian politics. But I would maintain that it is far from peripheral – that Manipur is, in fact, a microcosm of BJP-India as a whole, both in the logic that gave rise to the conflict and in the disproportionate violence directed against the predominantly Christian Kuki tribals and their places of worship.

The conflict began in May 2023 when the Meitei tribals of the Imphal Valley demanded that Scheduled Tribe (ST) status be extended to them (entitling them, like other tribal communities, to affirmative action benefits). This is not the first time they have made this demand, but on this particular occasion, their petition triggered protests that turned violent. The Meitei – who make up 53 percent of Manipur’s population – are more economically and educationally advanced than the Naga and Kuki tribes of the hills, and the latter have enjoyed ST status, which guarantees them quotas in education and employment, along with other state benefits. Besides alleging that the state is benefiting other minorities to their own detriment, the Meiteis and the Biren Singh-led BJP government have leveled other charges against the Kukis that have sanctioned violence against them. They allege that their numbers are rising from the infiltration of refugees from Myanmar (who are their fellow tribesmen) and that they are promoting illegal poppy cultivation and narco-trafficking. This rhetoric bears a striking resemblance to claims about demographic threats to the Hindu majority posed by Muslim cross-border infiltration from Bangladesh or other neighboring states.

Three other similarities between the crisis in BJP-led Manipur and BJP-led India are worth noting:

First, we see violence on both sides, but vastly disproportionate violence being inflicted on the weaker party. In this respect, Manipur’s violence resembles the tribal violence in the state of Odisha in 2007, when, after the murder of a Hindu leader, entire Christian villages were ransacked and thousands of Christians forced to flee from their homes.

Second, in Manipur, the delay in action by the state or instances of actual complicity resembles pogroms against minorities elsewhere in India. The government led by Biren Singh was well-positioned to prevent the unfolding carnage that continues to this day. Drawing from Paul Brass, the political scientist, K.K. Suan Hausing has described the situation in Manipur as an “institutionalized riot system,” where riots are anticipated and choreographed to achieve certain state objectives, in this case, securing Meitei hegemony and further marginalizing the Kukis.

Third, in Manipur and BJP-India, we observe the rhetoric of a victimized Hindu majority, on the receiving end of minority aggression. Both contexts have deployed the classical rightist discourse of privileges being extended to minorities at the expense of the majority, who are the true bearers of national heritage. This allegation is particularly acute relative to the matter of reservations – and the belief that Hindu (and Brahmin) hegemony is being threatened by affirmative action for Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Castes, and other minorities.

Liberal democracy is by definition radically inclusive. It is designed to protect people who may sharply disagree with our beliefs and who aspire to flourish – as individuals and communities – in a society as diverse as India’s. We might imagine that India’s plurality chiefly consists of its many “religions”. But it should be noted that Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of India are not monoliths, but are themselves highly diverse constituencies, with much at stake in preserving the constitutional framework of the Indian nation. The Indian experiment began with massive buy-in for liberal democracy. A Constituent Assembly lasting nearly three years hammered out the contours of India’s Constitution, a document that balances the powers of the central government with those of the states, and safeguards minorities from majoritarian pressures. The eclipse of liberal democracy is well underway, but the next six weeks will reveal its full extent and impact.



Cover photo: A flag of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a hoarding of their leader and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on April 15, 2024 ahead of the country’s upcoming general elections. (Photo by Idrees Mohammed / AFP)

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